Towards a Poetics of Making

Lately, I have been considering what I find to be the most engaging questions in my field and wondering if the theory that is available is of much use to me – or to my students. My friend at CCA, Dean Schneider, has been reading David Pye on the Nature and Art of Workmanship as part of his final thesis and it occurs to me that Pye’s notions of Workmanship of Risk and Certainty are still some of the most useful concepts for me when thinking about art, craft and design. I’m wondering if there aren’t other parameters and concepts that I find relevant in my work that might be more universally and usefully applied across the field.

But where to start on such a project? I’ve titled this project ‘Towards a Poetics of Making’. Admittedly somewhat pompous, but I think appropriate. I’m searching for qualities in making that can be identified clearly and that help understand the nature of making and at the same time provide tools for makers to think about, conceptualize and move their practice forward. Much like the notions of simile, metaphor, meter and other tools help poets to understand and construct their work while achieving a transcendent and culturally valuable outcome.

So what aspects of making could be relevant to this project? I’ve already talked about some concepts which I’ve been finding useful in some earlier posts. In my recent travels and spending time with students, faculty and the general public I have been introducing, discussing and enriching my own understanding of the notions of  ‘artifact’ and ‘translation’ that I introduced in  a previous post – which you can read here.

An over-arching question which I’ve been finding a useful tool arises from my thinking on ‘artifact’.

What concepts or cultural values adhere to a particular process?

In defining artifact I have focussed on the idea from science of an artifact being  a direct affect (often unintended, unexpected or unwanted) from a particular process or tool. In art making this is often referred to as a ‘mark’ and the consequence of using a tool is ‘mark-making’. The quality of the mark is determined both by the nature of the tool (be it pencil, or oilstick, or chainsaw), the ‘fluency’ and intention of the artist, and the medium which supports the mark.

I my thinking about translation, I have wondered what is gained or lost in translation as a concept or action gets transferred across media? In my own recent collaboration with Matt Hebert of SDSU using both hand whittling and digital fabrication, I have wondered if the inherent qualities of the whittlings – the form and surface that derives from the subtle interplay between the initial shape and material properties of the wooden piece, the shape of the knife, and my own thinking with both hand and mind – get lost or augmented by their subsequent translation through digital processes into objects of radically different scale, process and materiality? And then, what new attributes come from the translation that add to or contradict the initial qualities and readings provided by the whittlings? Of course, these attributes can be both physical and conceptual. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m hoping the works that we make together over the next few months help me discover some answers.

One thing I have concluded, is that the works in design, craft and art that engage me the most are those that have the process of making and the meanings that adhere to those processes at the forefront of their conceptual underpinning.

Which leads me inevitably to some thoughts on ‘craft’. At a discussion following Fo Wilson’s recent lecture at CCA, someone made the statement that ‘craft is an activity that brings you closer to the source.’ I like that! The notion that any activity that brings you closer to the core values and qualities of that medium or field is ‘craft’. So cooking involving all unprocessed ingredients where you are close to the source of those materials and understand the cultural histories and values of all of the materials and processes involved is close to the ‘craft’ of cooking. And this applies to both the cook and the diner – both the artist and the connoisseur. The source is in the sauce!

This way of thinking clearly applies to traditional notions of craft practice and allows us to expand the use of the term ‘craft’ to cooking, writing, and even designing video games. I have mourned the passing of a useful definition of craft as it has been applied to any activity which requires human intervention – the craft of shopping? Perhaps these notions of ‘source’ and ‘artifact’ can help me reclaim the terms as something useful to me as a maker who loves and is embroiled in the histories and stories imbedded in the tools, materials and processes I employ.

I welcome any thoughts you might have! These tools will only be useful if other people find them handy!

Day 30 – Artifact and Translation

There are two terms which have become pathways to think about my work that have become very important to me here. I’m now starting to think about how they can be applied to other works – both scientific and artistic.

They are Artifact and Translation. You can look them up in the OED, if you still own one!

But to my mind their definitions can be paraphrased as –


In the archaeological sense, an object or device created in connection with a culture, or in fact any cultural element – both the television set and ‘I Love Lucy’ are artifacts of mid-20thC American culture.

In the scientific sense, a (mostly unexpected and/or undesirable) attribute or effect of using a particular process.

I made a comment in a previous blog that an artifact and a ‘mark’ are very similar – artists cherish the unexpected or particular attributes of a process and in some disciplines it is called or defined as a ‘mark’.

In the aWay station, the first example of artifact/mark was the mark made from the knife while whittling. At first its a simple consequence of knife against wood, then it starts to flow along the form of the whittling, and soon it becomes the finishing detail that defines the tactile quality of the finished object. Another artifact that is at the heart of the Rodeo Project is the characteristic curlycue of ‘live trace’ – a tool or artifact of Adobe Illustrator. I  used and abused this tool to make the images in the Rodeo project and its the source of the fractal landscape/camouflage effect in the detail of these prints.

Whittling facets – knife artifacts

Rodeo charlie – riddled with live trace artifacts


All of the works I’ve made in the aWay station (and some earlier works in the Genius loci series) have gone through some form of digital translation, where object, images or sounds from the real world are abstracted into the virtual/digital world and then outputted again to the physical with a scale, medium and/or dimensional translation. I’ve been wondering what gets lost and what gets gained in these translations. Any new material or process of rendering the translation carries its own artifacts and associations. These need to be ‘mastered’, tweaked and left feral to express their inherent qualities.

I’m still looking for the material qualities I would like to see in the translations for my whittlings.

During my recent public talk at the aWay station, in defining ‘artifact’, I talked about the birth of radio astronomy in the work of Karl Jansky in the 1930’s. While Jansky was working with Bell Telephone Labs he tried to work out the source of the strange noise found in all short wave, trans-Atlantic radio transmissions. He thought it was an ‘artifact’, an incidental unwanted signal arising from the equipment used, but no matter how much he twiddled and fiddled it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t until he traced the source to the sky, noted the cycle of its activity and consulted astrophysicists, that he realized the artifact was in fact an artifact of the galaxy – the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emanating from the dense center of the Milky Way.

The moral?  Sometimes the most important information is buried in the smallest scale artifacts.

Day 25 – the Rodeo Project

Despite the fact that I have only a few days left here – boo hoo – I’m starting some new projects. I might not have time to resolve them fully, but it’s exciting to see new directions opening up.

Though the ‘Rodeo Project’ (working title) isn’t entirely a new direction. It harks back to my first Australian residency in Hobart where I made Correspondence, which turned out to be the first in the Genius Loci series of works which aWay station is definitely part of.

I’ve been collecting stones along Rodeo Beach. I tried to resist but it’s impossible!

These stones with quartz veins through them drew my attention. The strong contrast between the quartz and its matrix conjures thoughts of larger landscapes or the foam of the nearby surf. I enjoy this fractal quality – the tiny reflects and embodies the huge and vice versa.

All of the work I’ve been making in the aWay station has been using scale and medium translations often mediated through at least one digital technology. When I’m not building furniture, whittling or cutting out and lashing skin forms, I’m on my trusty laptop fiddling about with video, imagery, or 3-D models (and blogging of course). The digital seems to be where the forms, images and concepts are abstracted. The output might be purely digital or result in a second (or third) round of hand-work. I’ve become interested in the ‘artifact’ – both the tool and the coincidental characteristics that adhere to a certain technology – the facets left by a knife on a whittled form, the curlycue patterns and abstracted color choices resulting from live trace, the strange natural/technological double vision provided by zipties.

Rodeo Beach selection

A collection of pebbles from Rodeo beach has been arrayed on the trestles for a few days. I was thinking about transposing them by hand with pen and ink illustrations that I would then modify digitally in some way. But I started fiddling with ‘live trace’ in Illustrator, which I experimented with during my residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center a few years ago. I want the final images to conjure contour maps, and some of the extraordinary close up images we have recently seen of asteroids. And for them to have that fractal quality adhere to them so that they reflect themselves at all scales.

I’ve started working with these two stones. Which I’m calling Rodeo alpha and Rodeo bravo – in honor of the former uses of Fort Cronkhite.

Rodeo alpha and Rodeo bravo

Here is just a sneak peak of the fine detail of some of the in-process images from Rodeo bravo.

Flows, within flows, within flows…

You will have to come out to the Headlands this coming Sunday at 1pm to see the completed prints and to enjoy the other works in the aWay station.